adventures in craft beer and real food

Sunday, March 25, 2007

A response to Vinography

I wrote this piece in response to Alder, who is the homme behind Vinography.

Alder wrote an article in which he argued that technological modification of wines helps winemakers stay on their vineyards, and benefits the wine industry in France (especially Bordeaux). While I am not an authority on wine economics, I think his overall argument is marred by a fundamental difference of opinion when it comes to quality and purity. Whether I think the application of modern winemaking techniques helps winemakers is an issue that I don't know enough to address, and consequently leave the matter to others.

Without further ado...

It seems odd for Alder to assert that wine quality is necessarily reflected in higher sales. Is supermarket plonk wine good because it sells so well? It's not true of any other food product: Kraft cheese slices versus Hook's 12 year cheddar, cheese whiz versus a veritable brie. So why does he think it's true of wine? Greater sales may result because a product is of higher quality, but that is certainly not true a priori.

I've tended to agree with Karen MacNeil when she writes, "One of the most insidious myths in American wine culture is that a wine is good if you like it. Liking a wine has nothing to do with whether it is good. Liking a wine has to do with liking wine, period."

I agree that wine makers, like all kinds of farmers, need support to be able to stay on the land. While I agree that wine makers should be allowed to make wines that people like more, that doesn't necessarily make them better wines. The wines may or may not be better, but there is no logical relationship between like-ability and quality.

As for technology in wine making, I think the anti-technology camp is similar to the aversion that many serious beer drinkers and home brewers have to flavorings and adjuncts. If I were brewing a coffee stout for example, I would want to use grains that have been roasted to an appropriate extent to generate the correct Maillard flavors. This practice is better than throwing some coffee beans into the brew kettle and adding the flavor that way (although many good caffeinated beers are made that way). Indeed, I think one of the real pleasures of many beers is the fact that their flavors come from very simple sources: barley, hops, yeast, and water (e.g. the banana flavor of a hefeweizen from the yeast and fermentation conditions). In a blind taste test, I might not be able to tell the difference. But if I knew how they were both made, it's pretty clear to me which one I'd choose.

And it's the same with wine.

A wine that has been "manipulated" in one way or another may not be evident upon taste. But I think many of us would agree that we'd rather drink the wine that hasn't been oaked to mask certain flavors, chaptalized to cover-up a yield that's too large, etc. These techniques have their uses, but they can be used for good just as much as for evil.

To take this to the absurd extreme, imagine if flavor companies became interested in manufacturing the molecules that make up wine flavor. These chemicals could then be mixed with water and ethanol, and voila! Wine! Consistent replication of the finest Bordeaux and Barolo vintages with no chance of off-flavors, spoilage, or corking! Even if the products couldn't be differentiated from the original wines by a mass spectrometer, I wouldn't drink them.


Saturday, March 10, 2007


I wanted to avoid the movie Beerfest like BMC, but I knew at some point I'd have to say a few words about it. And that time is now.

The premise of this comedy is pretty simple: two guys go to Oktoberfest in München and get introduced to a beer-drinking competition called Beerfest. They get roundly insulted by the reigning world-champion German team, and the Americans unwisely challenge them and lose. The Americans spend a year training for a rematch and win. It's basically a sports movie.

Beerfest is really a mixed bag of bar nuts, some of them savory, some past their prime, and some rotten to the core. Since this isn't a film blog, I'm not about to actually review the movie so much as provide commentary on parts of it that I think will be relevant and interesting to the readers of Pint and Fork.

Perhaps the moment that made the movie worth the $3.99 I spent to watch it was the insults the Americans got from the europeans. They got called malt-beverage drinkers. Sadly, many people have lost their acquired taste for traditional, complex beverages like beer, wine, and fine cocktails. Traditional alcoholic beverages like wine and beer have been demonstrated to have numerous and wide-ranging health benefits. It's true that many Americans grew up chugging Mountain Dew, and have grown into adults drinking Mike's Hard Lemonade -- which has all the complexity of a solution of citric acid, sugar, and ethanol. And, obviously, I think that's a bad thing. Traditional alcoholic beverages, especially beer and wine, are Hieronymus Bosch; malt beverages, alcopops, and crude mixology are the covers of Hallmark cards. A gimmick, a laugh, an insight that, once understood, loses all of its value. I've been enjoying porters for five years now and I learn something new every time I drink another.

There's a part in the movie when the main characters find the long-lost recipe for the best beer in all of Germany, and proceed to make it at home. There's a scene where they're standing over a pot of boiling wort and they add a can of amber John Bull Malt Extract. This is completely absurd on a variety of levels. John Bull Malt Extract is renowned for its high dextrin content, which makes it ideal for making heartier British ales which are pretty much the exact opposite of the helles style that they presumably were drinking at the competitions. Second, no German beer recipe would ever use malt extract. Germans look down upon the use of malt extracts like no one else, and for good reason. The unique character of many German lagers can only be derived via decoction mashing, the really old school way of brewing. Third, beer formulations are almost never as extensively recorded as cooking recipes. That is, the recipe will give the quantities of the necessary ingredients; the brewer must know how to combine the ingredients. I believe professional bakers operate similarly.

Nevertheless, the characters had a beer revelation when they tasted their homebrew. Beer made at home can be really, really good. And beers are created very unequally. Sadly many people suffer from outrageous misconceptions surrounding homebrew. Dark, heavy, icky, sugar-filled, exploding bottles, undrinking, cheap buzz, equivalent to moonshine, toxic, it'll make you blind, it's illegal... And sadly, many people don't realize they're drinking bad beer. To some extent, that's fine. I drink soda like Coca Cola, and I realize that I could be drinking Sprecher, Lake Front, or Stewart's. (In my defense, I'm a beer geek not a soda geek.)

I was worried that the movie would be all Miller Lite here and Bud Light there and Coors over there. But there was no mention of BMC, nor any BMC taps visible in any scene in the movie. The only established brand depicted, Späten, is of course one of the world's premier bock breweries.

To be fair, the movie did have some genuinely funny moments. For example, there was a scene when the main characters turned down a suitcase full of euros for a suitcase full of US dollars ("euros... what's that worth? Like pesos?").

Now onto things that I didn't like as much.

Beerfest touches on some extremely controversial topics with jaw-dropping insensitivity. The portrayal of Germans in the movie is the Hans-und-Frans stereotype directly from Central Casting. There's also a Jew (portrayed as intelligent and metrosexual) who was encouraged to compete in Beerfest because it meant he'd get revenge against the Germans. Ok, holocaust reference. That could be ok, but later in the movie one of the German characters puts down the Jewish character on the basis of his religion. This causes the offended character to have "the eye of the Jew", eyes with bright gold stars of David in them. As a plot device, that sucks.

The movie had a tremendous amount of senseless nudity and otherwise unwarranted sexual depiction. A lot of women lose their shirts throughout the course of the film. And it turns out that one of the characters is a prostitute. Now, I appreciate and enjoy the female form as much as anyone, but this isn't Stripes. The unrestrained depiction of mature content de-elevates the entire film.

More importantly, however, I worry that the movie reinforces negative attitudes about beer. The characters drink massively, wildly unrealistic quantities of my favorite libation, and get drunk and do stupid things. Beer has so much more to offer other than ethanol. Drinking, especially the Bavarian drinking tradition, is something to do while you're doing something else like socializing or eating. As such, moderation is extremely important and many look disapprovingly upon drunkenness. The movie is so silly that I'm not going to be pedantic and suggest that Beerfest encourages these behaviors. But I don't think it can be denied that there is a subset of people who consider beer a drug, a disease, something that should be forcibly removed from society before it kills us. And to some extent these people do have a point. Alcohol is responsible for a large number of deaths every year, and may encourage violent, abusive, or otherwise unfortunate behavior. However, these people draw the wrong conclusions. It's not alcohol that's responsible so much as an overdose of alcohol. Nevertheless, a movie like this supports this negative impression of beer and the kind of people who enjoy it. That impression is the Animal House, party every night, drink to absolute stomach-pumping drunkenness, fratboy stereotype of alcohol consumption. While that model fits many people, it fits those who enjoy craft beer like kids' gloves.

I couldn't help comparing the movie to Sideways, otherwise known as The Movie That Panned Merlot. In that movie, there's a wine geek character who displays a range of emotions to which the audience is led to be sympathetic. He is articulate, knowledgeable, and sensitive. His friend enjoyed wine as a recreational beverage, and in contrast he was inarticulate, brutish, and a shameless womanizer. None of the characters in Beerfest are even as good as the latter character in Sideways.

Beerfest doesn't digress on how marvelous, complex, and diverse beer can be or try to improve audience appreciation for the beverage the way Sideways did. And although I fault that movie for slowing the plot down unnecessarily, it was something that wine geeks presumably liked and caused and gave the film value within that niche market. Sadly, Beerfest has no such hooks that elevate the movie above the trite, predictable, unartful flick that it is.

Am I embarrassed, even ashamed to have seen it? Of course. But did I enjoy it? Surprisingly, yes. Yes, I did.